Socialist Worker

A vital defence of violence by the oppressed

by Nick Clark
Issue No. 2721

Frantz Fanon (front, pic: University of Chicago), a poster from the Algerian Revolution against French colonialism (background, pic: INSA)

Frantz Fanon and a poster from the Algerian Revolution against French colonialism (background, pic: INSA) (Pic: front - University of Chicago, background - INSA)


Every struggle that ­confronts the violence of the system by throwing back some of its own faces the accusation that resistance itself is the problem.

In response many turn to the ideas of Frantz Fanon—the anti-colonial writer and activist.

He has inspired many ­liberation struggles, including some of the most militant movements in the US.

In the late 1960s, as riots against racism spread, Dan Watson of the radical Liberation magazine reported that, “Every brother on a ­rooftop can quote Fanon.”

Colonised

Fanon was the product of the colonial system he spent his life fighting. Born in 1925 in Martinique, an island in the Caribbean colonised by France, he was brought up there to see himself as French.

But when he joined the Free French Army during the Second World War he found he was a second class citizen.

He returned briefly to Martinique where he was taught by the radical poet Aime Cesaire, who ­introduced him to negritude”—a movement that celebrated black identity.

Continuing his studies in Paris, where he trained to become a psychiatrist, he wrote his first influential book, Black Skin, White Masks.

Algeria’s fights for freedom
Algeria’s fights for freedom
  Read More

It reflected “the lived ­experience of a black person” and analysed the way racism worked. Fanon argued that racism created “blackness” as an identity inferior to “whiteness” then forced that identity onto black people.

Fanon moved to Algeria—which was colonised by France—and joined the armed liberation ­movement the FLN, eventually becoming a leading figure in it.

His books Year Five of the Algerian Revolution, and The Wretched of the Earth feature some of his most important anti-racism ideas.

In the 50s and 60s, when Fanon was writing, empires were being shaken by anti‑colonial movements.

The Wretched of the Earth, written after Fanon was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 1960, was a defence of the anti-colonial movements from their liberal critics.

But it was also an attempt to argue against the betrayal of the movement by its leaders.

Justification

Fanon made his ­justification of violence in a famous chapter of this book. His starting point was that colonialism was based on violence.

He described colonial ­society as one completely shaped by violence. It meant that violence wasn’t just an inevitable part of resistance—but that armed struggle was necessary to destroy the basis of the colonial system.

He said this made ­colonised societies different from ­capitalism in European countries, where the ruling class rule through their control of workplaces and the economy. Because of this, Fanon was dismissive of workers’ struggles.

Cruel Britannia—the bloody truth about the British Empire
Cruel Britannia—the bloody truth about the British Empire
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Instead he saw armed struggle as a potentially transformational force that would create the space for a new society.

He argued that not only did victories through armed struggle help empower colonised people, it also united them—while guarding against betrayal by middle class leaders who sought compromise.

Algeria was liberated shortly after Fanon’s death. Mass strikes and demonstrations were central to the defeat of the French rulers.

The FLN became the new government—and collapsed into the sort of compromise Fanon had warned against.

Yet his arguments about the roots of violence—and his defence of those who fight back—remain vital tools.

This is part of a series about radical black lives. Go to bit.ly/SWBlackLives

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